I was sick this week and decided to play Fallout 4 to relax. I’m not 100% on board with Fallout 4—I find its emphasis on action over roleplaying frustrating—but it’s full of fun characters. One of them, the robotic detective Nick Valentine, isn’t just one of the best character in the game. He’s one of the best in the entire series.
One of the major threats in Fallout 4 is the mysterious Institute. They are elusive technocrats responsible for the creation of “synths,” androids that can pass for humans. Fallout 4 oftens uses synths as a catch-all enemy; older models roam ruined buildings and remote outposts as a generic enemy for the player to battle. But every now and then, Fallout 4 also uses synths to explore ideas of bigotry and identity. These attempts often fall flat but succeed spectacularly in the case of Nick Valentine.
Nick Valentine is a detective in Diamond City, a makeshift settlement in the ruins of Boston’s Fenway Park. He’s a middle generation synth, extremely old, and clearly mechanical. Diamond City has a rigid policy against outsiders—they don’t allow irradiated “ghouls” into their city and are suspicious that secret synths are infiltrating. But they like Nick; he’s a good guy who helps people out with their problems. The tension between Nick’s achieved social status and his ascribed status as a synth allows the game to explore middle grounds of bigotry, those quiet but hurtful moments when someone is told they’re “one of the good ones.” Nick, who can join you as a companion character, provides an anchor point to explore the ramifications of suspicion and Fallout 4’s fantasy racism. He helps bring the game into focus.
Fallout has the tricky task of balancing the player’s need to wander with their character’s motivations. In Fallout 4, you’re meant to search for your missing infant son but can always walk off to kill super mutants or do sidequests. It can be hard to focus on the main plot with so many distractions, but Nick role in the main plot helps. Nick’s your best chance at finding your son, but you first need to rescue him from a group of 1920’s-esque gangsters who’ve bunkered down in an underground vault. Everything involving Nick is tinged with a charming pulp edge. After rescuing Nick, you embark on a hunt to find your son’s kidnapper in an extended sequence that feels somewhere between Dick Tracy and Blade Runner. Fallout 4 struggles to have an identity other than “Like Fallout 3, but more!” and Nick’s sequences push back against that. For a good 4-5 hours, the game transforms into a sort of post-apocalyptic neo noir, packed with hardboiled one-liners and gritty gunfights. Every second is a joy to play.
Nick’s also just a damn good dude. Fallout 4 has a strong roster of companion characters, but Nick’s mixture of world-weary cynicism and stalwart do-goodery makes him one of the most likeable characters in the series. Stephen Russell, best known for playing Garrett in the Thief series of games, voices Nick with a playful baritone that colours each phrase. You always have a sense of who Nick is. He’s seen and put up with a lot of bullshit, but he’s going to do the right thing even if it kills him. That’s a valuable companion to have in a setting like Fallout, where the lines between civilised life and raider indulgence are often razor thin.
Nick Valentine is everything a companion character should be. He has a strong connection to the world’s plot and themes, helps the game explore interesting ideas, and feels like a real person. Fallout 4 can sometimes feel artificial, as Preston Garvey grants another procedurally generated quest or an NPC gets stuck on a piece of level geometry. Nick helps hold everything together, and he’s the only companion I need while wandering the Wasteland.